Story time : Children’s literature expert, Karen Nelson Hoyle, on women’s themes in storytelling

Karen Nelson Hoyle (Courtesy Photo)

People come from all over the world to see the Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature at the University of Minnesota, with its 100,000 books and original manuscripts or artwork for more than 18,000 titles. Dr. Karen Nelson Hoyle, professor and curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections, which includes the Kerlan, has worked with the collection for over 40 years. She retired in January 2012. Hoyle spoke with the Minnesota Women’s Press about the different genres of storytelling-myths, fairy tales, folklore and legends. 

by Kathy Magnuson

What defines a myth or fairy tale? 

Myth is the spiritual life of a people. It comes from people seeking understanding of the world, which is kind of a spiritual quest. 

Folklore or folk tales are a traditional passing down of early oral traditions, the stories that are often teachable customs. 

For example Red Riding Hood can be considered to be a fairy tale coming from the folklore tradition. It is perceived to be a cautionary tale to young women-that they need to be aware of their surroundings and not to be led by an evil person into something beyond their control. 

Legends are stories about heroes. 

Then there are literary fairy tales. These are sometimes taken from folklore but they are actually written by an author who has given them shape. 

In a sense Wanda Gág, a Minnesotan, took folk tales and worked them out. She wrote “Millions of Cats” published in 1928, a wonderful story about a very old woman and a very old man who wanted so much to have a cat. She also wrote a feminist piece, “Gone is Gone.” She took a folk tale from Norway about a husband and wife and she gave it her own words and it came out in her own story. A husband and wife changed roles-the wife goes into the field and the husband takes care of the house. The husband does not do very well. He puts the cow on the roof. The baby gets into the butter. The woman comes out from the field having accomplished as much [as the man would have]. It is a kind of role reversal, and fun. 

There is a Cinderella story in the American Indian tradition in which a woman works hard and is abused. She has cinders pushed into her face to make her ugly. Out of this comes a very beautiful woman who has been steeled by hardship. 

There are these myths in every tradition. 

Increasingly feminists are looking to folk tales to find stories that speak to them. And then they may be again recreated in a more modern dress by an author who takes a folk tale and makes it her own. 

Why are these stories so long lived? 

Because they come from a human inner need to understand. There are myths about how and why. How was Earth created? Who created the Earth? And sometimes it is a male and sometimes it is a female. How does one explain the concept of love? How do we explain winter and summer? It is a yearning and then codified into myth and then shared as the spiritual example that is passed on to the next generation. 

Do you see recurring women’s themes or archetypes? 
With the Greek tradition of characters, the woman might win a race by rolling gold balls that would be tempting to other runners. The cleverness of a woman comes out in myth and legend. She is the victor with her adroitness, with her seeing through the man’s behavior and finding a way to win with her beauty, with her cleverness. 

In the stories “1001 Nights” Scheherazade was very smart. To prevent being killed, she told a story every night to the person threatening her and in this way, intrigued the person so that he wanted a story the next night and so her life was spared 1001 times. 

[These kinds of themes] bring new information or new thinking. There is also the ability to survive. The symbol of love is often equated with the woman. 

Do you see new stories emerging that will have longevity? 
Time will certainly tell that. What we see are folk tale themes. Going back to Wanda Gág’s theme that a woman’s work is dismissed often by a male or society, but in fact when her work is lifted up, the man cannot succeed in achieving that work. So one sees the balance of the sexes. 

What do you think of Disney-fication of traditional tales? 
We have to be realistic. Disney exists and has perpetuated and is certainly in our culture to stay. But if we are looking at “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” for example, Disney changed the classic story. In the oral tradition there are three temptations for Snow White and Disney only deals with one, the apple. So that is lost, that magical number three. Snow White is made into a bit of a sexpot. She has “a look.” The dwarfs are given names in Disney where in the traditional tale they are very much alike and hard working. This is Disney’s addition and I’m sure he felt he would amuse children, but it is a departure from the pure folk tradition. 

Do you think children read fairy tales as much today? 
I think the big question is technology vs. reading time. Story is certainly available in electronic games and interactive technology for children. Reading is a skill that is going to be a key to success in life. We as adults need to make books accessible, available to children. I still hear of the children who read with a flashlight under the covers. As a librarian I am committed and delighted whenever I hear about a child who is reading books. 

The Children’s Literature Research Collections (CLRC) is located in 113 Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank Campus of the University of Minnesota, 222 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis. Open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 612-624-4576,

Karen Nelson Hoyle recommends these books about fairy tales and modern-day folk stories:

Gone Is Gone: or The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework by Wanda Gág. A man and woman trade roles because he thought hers would be easy. 

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine. Based on the story of Snow White, Aza’s kindness, humility and gradual recognition of her own self-worth contributes an important message about the value of inner beauty, no matter how well hidden. 

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. How can a fairy’s
blessing be such a curse? Strong-willed Ella does not tamely accept her fate. (Newbery Honor Book) 

Betsy Who Cried Wolf by Gail Carson Levine. On her 8th birthday Betsy takes the Shepherds’ Oath and is determined to be the best shepherd in Bray Valley history. Any wolf who tries to eat her sheep had better watch out. 

The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli. A midwife-sorceress, tricked by the devil’s minions, loses her gifts, is forced to become a witch, and lives her life alone in the forest, until two children-named Hansel and Gretel-wander by. 

Big Momma Makes the World by Phyllis Root. Minneapolis author. No-nonsense tall tale of Big Momma the creator is a jubilant celebration of our beautiful world-and a reminder to take good care of it. 

Cronus Cronicles-series of 3 books: The Shadow Thieves, The Siren Song and The Immortal Fire by Anne Ursu. Minneapolis author. A modern-day version of Greek mythology’s underworld that can be accessed via a local megamall in this young-adult fantasy. 

The Very Little Princess: Zoey’s Story by Marion Dane Bauer. St. Paul author. Regina is only 3-1/4 inches tall, but she knows from the moment she wakes up in her dollhouse bed that she is a princess. A tale of friendship, family, and loss, laced with humor and joy. 

Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England edited by Jack Zipes.